Shutting Doors on Our Nation’s Children: The School Closure Epidemic

It is no secret the charter school model is spreading like wildfire across America, and public school students and administrators are getting burned as a result in big cities and small towns alike. School systems that have long gone underfunded or mismanaged are like kindling for the blaze, and the needs of the public school students in those systems largely are being ignored.

Students in Washington, D.C., possibly have been the most affected by this firestorm. Facing a heavy budget crunch and the competition of numerous public charter schools in the district, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced plans in January to close 15 public schools in the next year.

Despite evidence that public school closures negatively affect the performance of students of all ages, officials insist the closures are necessary to balance the district’s budget. The closing of public schools means students must travel further to school on a daily basis, many times resulting in poor performance from young students.

With the influx of numerous charter schools and the low enrollment now suffered by so many underserved and underfunded public schools around the country, public officials claim they have no choice but to further press upon our nation’s public school children.

In D.C., a rising number of charter schools in the district, coupled with policies that encourage families to move to these new schools, has led to low enrollment in many of the district’s public school facilities. Rather than endeavor to improve enrollment at these schools, DCPS has decided to begin closing public schools.

Families in Philadelphia and Chicago are fighting the school closure battle as well. Philadelphia is slated to close several public schools in June, reflecting the national trend with school closures being concentrated in mostly poor areas of the city and with a disproportionately affected population of minority students. While 55 percent of the overall student population in Philadelphia is African American, 79 percent of the students in schools projected to close are African American.

In Chicago, similar school closures are pushing forward behind claims that schools are being underutilized and suffer from low enrollment. In the meantime, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district has approved the opening of multiple new charter schools.

Chicago Families Outraged

Chicago Public Schools has held several public hearings in recent months to discuss the closures. The public has responded loudly in many instances, with multiple events drawing crowds of more than a thousand. Police were forced to appear and keep the peace at one such hearing on Feb. 6. Many parents and community members were heard chanting “Justice!” The meeting was in such disarray, that at one point Marco Reyes, a 7th grader at Madero Middle School, walked right up to the members of the board and said it was not fair for them to close his school. After he spoke to the board, he asked, “Where am I gonna go? I’m gonna give up on myself if they give up on me.…”

Even if school closures actually improved overall public school funding, public school officials still would be ignoring the inequity of taking public education away from a struggling student in order to provide for other learners. Tim Cawley, CPS chief operating officer, has said publicly, “If we think there’s a chance that a building is going to be closed in the next five to 10 years, if we think it’s unlikely it’s going to continue to be a school, we’re not going to invest in that building.”

This is essentially an admission that Chicago Public Schools intends to let struggling schools drown instead of investing in life preservers. This sort of thinking violates everything AFSA educators believe in.

Strong Opposition

AFSA President Diann Woodard expressed her fervent opposition to this ideology. “The idea that we should close schools instead of helping them to improve the quality of the education that they provided their students is appalling. The very fundamental principle of public education is that we should provide an equal opportunity to learn to all students regardless of their race or how much their family can afford.

“I think it should be obvious to all persons genuinely interested in improving public education that shutting down schools in need is not the answer,” she said. “We have to provide funding to struggling schools, as well as ensure that quality teachers and administrators are not turned out when their students need them most.”

AFSA has called on public education officials to address the funding disparities in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., for years. Those calls largely have been sidestepped or ignored. Now that the budget crunch is coming down harder than ever, we cannot allow the toll to be taken out on our students.

This trend of closing schools to alleviate budget pressures is unjust, and AFSA educators cannot allow it to stand.

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